GL.23.16: Ryan Joyce (House Music)
33 and 1/3 (again) for 2023
Reasons for optimism remain rare birds in 2023. But let’s find some in the year in music. First: records, lots of records. With the lockdown over it seems a lot of bands got back into studios where they could properly record guitars and amps and drums (the kind where you actually hit something with a stick). All respect and gratitude to folks who put out music made on a laptop at their mom’s house, but let’s be glad that happened in the past tense. Relatedly, guitars! I’ve loaded this list with guitars, Guitars, GUITARS! It just was that kind of year. These two features probably have a lot to do with the releases by my local record label, Polyvinyl (local in the sense they have, or had, an office in my neighborhood, I think they are based at U. of Illinois.) Having an indie record label in the neighborhood does good things, including giving you some bands to root for just because you are a parochial snob.
More broadly, this marks another successful year of resistance against the would-be all-consuming algorithms that try so hard to draw our attention to the music they think will keep us logged in and clicking. I feel particularly susceptible to Spotify’s version, the Bastoy Prison of streaming music algorithms. It is hard to complain when everywhere else is so much worse, right?
I have a story about the joy of being able to roam outside the walls, as it were. Early this year Camp Cope announced they were calling it quits. Last year I described their music as a source of hope and something to look forward to. Then they all quit because, basically, it’s too shitty to spend your life in a band like Camp Cope. Gutting, just gutting. Well after a few months I mustered the emotional energy to read and watch a few stories about my now-former favorite band. Someone in DMA’s was quoted saying something nice; but I couldn’t remember ever hearing of them before. Weird name. On a slow day I wandered onto their new album and bang, like a shot of whiskey it was just what I needed. Finding an album you enjoy so much from a band you didn’t know existed, that’s a worthwhile thing.
Now, DMA’s new album is absolutely nothing like Camp Cope; it’s more like the opposite. Turns out, that is what I was looking for. Definitely did not need another track from some band that reminded me they aren’t quite as talented, original, interesting, or inspiring as Camp Cope. Instead, those adjectives don’t apply at all to DMA’s music. It’s not trying to change the world or open your eyes. At most, it’s trying to remind you how much you liked Oasis or the Stone Roses, or more particularly, follow-on bands that tried to sound like that. And that’s all they are trying to do. They are like a tribute band to some britpop revival in Australia that I never even heard about, because why would I care?
Point is, no algorithm ever said I should listen to the DMA’s. And no algorithm ever would. Because why would a person thick into Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers want to hear that? No algorithm is going to say “you keep listening to those same four Camp Cope tracks, we’d like you to try something totally opposite that you never heard of, and that thing is DMA’s.” Not any algorithm that’s going to keep the lights on, anyway.
So let’s be glad for all the ways we are drawn into foreign spaces, hear strange new sounds, and are given the opportunity to love them, in our contradiction and madness. Here’s hoping 2024 gives you more of that.
01 boygenius — “True Blue”
02 DMA's — “Olympia”
Tommy O’Dell, the singer, has the voice of an angel. I care not what the song is about. Seems this one is something like: now that the band is more successful than we’d ever imagined, things sure are different than they used to be. That puts it in a last place tie for interesting song narrative -- with many, many other songs. But this music is about fat chords, an acoustic guitar being hit by some dude with Popeye arms, and passing the melody back and forth between singer and lead guitar over the top. Like a Christmas carol or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, if it's what you want, it's what you need.
BTW, DMA’s won this year’s listener contest for best Like a Version ever. Even if you hate this band with the impassioned fury of a britpop originalist, you -- yes I’m looking right at you, Aaron Bergstrom -- must admit the people are not wrong about still loving this cover.
03 Bully — “All I Do”
There’s a thing we used to do back in the college radio days, when we got excited about new albums that were too indie to show up on commercial radio. Somebody would get a hold of a newly released album, and you’d get together to listen to it for the first time. You’d hold the thing in your hands, and put Side A, Track 1 on the turntable with absolutely zero idea what it was going to sound like. If you were at all invested in the band, you’d feel the adrenaline, hear the needle drop over your heart pounding. “The new Replacements album is out -- and it sounds great!” “There’s a new Talking Heads album -- oh no, it’s really bad!” Big moments, big feelings. Like so many things we used to do together, now we do it alone, because we don’t live in dorms and all have digital access to everything. The needle drop is just hitting the play icon on Spotify.
I thought about this when I cued up Bully’s new album not having heard a word about it. I think this band can make great music, but it has struggled (in my opinion). “All I Do” kicks off this album like the gates of heaven opening. Like “Begin the Begin” on Lifes Rich Pageant -- you immediately know oh yes, this is going to rock. What a great moment, what a happy surprise that this is finally it, the Bully album we’ve been waiting for.
04 Chris Farren — “Bluish”
Chris Farren has been around long enough to get weird. And after getting weird and getting kinda famous for it, he’s back with an album that makes you appreciate what a great songwriter he is. Yeah it’s less noisy and less punk, but whatever he’s found to make his Jazzmaster sound this good, I hope he keeps it forever. This is a love song that says, in awkward ways, you are the only thing that calms my raging social anxiety. Yes, that sounds like love to me.
05 Palehound — “The Clutch”
El Kempner has been collaborating with Jay Som and working in new genres for a while now, but this track gets back to what she does best, which is rock that goddamn guitar hard. There’s a funky little bass riff, a tiny little thing, that comes in at what seems like the end of the bridge, about the 2:20 mark, that says “here we fucking go” and then everyone just goes for it. I love that. There are like 20 million people out there who claim to be fans of the Pixies and, my brethren, every one of you should be on board for this.
06 100 gecs — “Hollywood Baby”
Oh, are we speaking of going hard? Yes, let’s!
07 Olivia Rodrigo — “get him back!”
Over in the world of normals, Oliva Rodrigo had a hell of a year. At just 20, she released a sophomore album that is better than her first, a feat of near Swiftian heroics. (FTR, Taylor Swift’s sophomore album Fearless was released when she was 18; it just boggles the mind what this woman has done). Say what you like about those Disney High School Musical franchises, they teach the kids to sing. I love the fuzz bass under this track. It reminds me of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” but of course there’s no way that song means anything to her. There is some chance I am older than Olivia Rodrigo’s parents.
08 Miya Folick — “Get Out of My House”
Can you feel angry, but in the most positive, self-affirming way possible? This song will show you how.
09 JAWNY — “strawberry chainsaw”
The Strokes, but 100% less pretentious and complain-y. This track is like a sunny day.
10 Olivia Rodrigo — “love is embarrassing”
Others on this blog bravely took on the impossible task of choosing less than five favorite tracks from GUTS so I’ll try it too. This is such a good song, she could sing it just over acoustic guitar, kinda like this, and it would be great. Maybe 20 years from now Rodrigo will be doing a residency in Las Vegas and she’ll play it like that. I’ve got to believe it’s going to stand the test of time. FWIW, my others are: bad idea, right?, logical, and vampire.
11 Squirrel Flower — “Alley Light”
I’ve listened to a bunch of tracks from Squirrel Flower and never loved any of them until this. Who would have thought going into full Bruce Springsteen mode was the key, but damned if it wasn’t.
She looks so pretty tonight
Blue dress in the alley light.
I was gonna take her out tonight
But all her favorite spots closed down.
Makes me want to hold up a lighter or something.
12 Ratboys — “Morning Zoo”
This is a very good album and it is truly hard not to mention That Album By Wednesday You Must Always Compare It To. I should not read Pitchfork, I really shouldn’t. Also, Pitchfork compared this album to Saint Cloud and I was like “Blasphemer! You shall burn in Hell!” and that’s not a fun way to feel. I should not read Pitchfork. But I sinned and there’s no getting my virginity back. I guess I like it a little better than TABWYMACIT, but it’s not good enough for me to want to listen to that 8-minute track anymore.
13 Wednesday — “Chosen to Deserve”
Karly Hartzman and the boys are so perfectly in step on this track, which is all the more impressive because the lyrics are such carefully crafted poetry.
We always started by tellin' all our best stories first.
So now that it's been awhile, I'll get around
To tellin' you all my worst.
That opening sets up the song so perfectly. Country-fried shoegaze was not on my wish list this year but there’s no point in denying yourself listening to good music. And reflections-of-a-teenage-dirtbag is a very reliable well of American music, indeed.
14 IAN SWEET — “Smoking Again”
Never have I ever heard a more wrenching detail of a broken heart than “Oh, I've been a mess / Haven't slept / Started smoking again.”
15 Chappell Roan — “Red Wine Supernova”
Like Rodrigo, she sure can sing, and Dan Nigro knows it and knows damn well what to do with it. Her music is so performative, she knows that middle aged straight guys will just love lines like “I heard you like magic / I’ve got a wand and a rabbit.” Yet it's music that doesn’t try to exclude anyone. And in this era of sad girl indie music -- which I am here for, 100% here for -- this is the opposite of sad.
16 Lael Neale — “I Am The River”
I started listening to Lael Neale because Megan Jasper, the CEO of Sub Pop, said in an interview that Neale’s music was one thing that carried her through the early pandemic. Megan Jasper is a damn American hero, and in a just and good world all the people who have heard of Elon Musk would know about Megan Jasper instead.
17 Billie Eilish — “What Was I Made For?”
I liked this before I saw the movie. I’m too stubborn to stop liking it, even though it comes in the worst scene of a great movie. In hindsight, this could have been a complete catastrophe. Somebody thought, let’s have America’s favorite gothy pop heavy-breather make a song for our movie based on the Barbie line of toys! That someone abused the power they were given. They do not deserve praise for greenlighting such a terrible idea. But Billie and Phineas Eilish come through.
18 boygenius — “Not Strong Enough”
There are many, many things to say about boygenius and I’m not going to say any of them save this.
We should not ask that boygenius somehow become more than the sum of its parts. That is disrespectful of the parts. Dacus and Bridgers collectively have appeared on this list in 2016, 2017, 2018 (2x), 2019 (2x), 2020 (2x), 2021, and 2022. How much better are we hoping it can get, really? All three of these women are plainly having a ton of fun playing together, and all I ask is that they not become less than the parts. That, and please please please make more music.
19 Ten Tonnes — “Monday Morning”
Some light refreshment from a brit who tries to sing like he’s from Texas. He’s the opposite of Ryan Adams. Can you arrange a hostage exchange when neither person is a hostage?
20 DMA's — “Fading Like A Picture”
I’ve said all I have to say about this. It’s not any different from the last track. The point of this is to be NOT different.
21 Bully — “Days Move Slow”
Not the topic I wanted to hear a song about, but in this house we stare into the darkness unflinching. At least while we’re listening to bangers like this.
22 Chris Farren — “Cosmic Leash”
Forgot to mention that Chris Farren is a lovely singer, too. I can’t decide which is my favorite part of this: either the part where he says “You'll be waiting for the drop to come” and then the drop comes, or the line “I love to reap, I hate to sow,” which is reason enough to listen to Chris Farren.
23 100 gecs — “Dumbest Girl Alive”
Scraps of the heaviest shit ever heard plasma-welded into two minutes of fiery sonic assault, you can’t help but grit your teeth and snap your neck harder than you probably should. Winner of the coveted Ilana Bergstrom “WOO!” of the Year award, right now 100 gecs is a strong contender for the coolest band in America, and Laura Les for the coolest woman in American music. But I worry about that. As she gets more famous, it seems impossible for her to avoid the bile-spewing TERFs and their allies in hate. Can any artist survive that? Maybe she stays underground and won’t be worth the effort for our attention-seeking right wing trolls. But it seems there’s roughly one trans kid trying to play softball in America, and they found her. If you’re going to hit this hard, like giant-metal-fire-breathing-robot-dinosaur hard, folks are going to pay attention.
24 Dim Wizard — “Ride the Vibe”
A one-off supergroup of sorts. As boygenius has a surplus of great singers, this has a surplus of great guitarists.
25 Atka — “Lenny”
OK I will admit it was the algorithm that found this one. Don’t know much about it other than it's clearly a new project, and some kind of Berlin / London mashup.
26 Fenne Lily — “Lights Light Up”
To borrow an old turn of phrase, Fenne Lily is the best Fenne Lily-style artist working today.
27 Worriers — “Prepared to Forget”
So much music from Lauren Denitzio this year. I may have listened to “Trust Your Gut” more, but something about it sounds like a demo, like something Denitzio would rough-out and then have the old band arrange in that big Worriers’ sound. This track on the other hand sounds like it was born to breathe in the slow, spare style of Warm Blanket.
28 Caroline Rose — “Miami”
Caroline Rose made a break-up album that is just mercilessly brutal. Content warning: this is no fun. After the first two very specific verses about hurting, you are almost relieved to hear some distortion, something that might blur the focus so you don't have to hear the pain so clearly. At 3:15 in comes the payoff. It's not a chorus. It's a declaration of what the whole album is about:
There is the art of loving.
This is the art of forgetting how.
29 Fust — “Trouble”
We start the real country music section with something a little obscure. Country music from North Carolina should always sound like this to me. It’s got to have some part of James Taylor in it, the sadness and the regret of it, even if folks don’t remember who James Taylor is anymore.
30 The Nude Party — “Ride On”
And just to prove me wrong, here’s a country band from North Carolina that has none of that.
31 Jess Williamson — “A Few Seasons”
Jess Williamson and her beautiful voice justify her legacy as a member of Plains. Just a goddamn gorgeous beautiful track if ever there was one.
32 Margo Cilker — “Keep It On A Burner”
Is northwestern country music a thing? Like sure there’s plenty of people in the northwest who love country music, but do they have their own scene and their own acts? Seems like they must, and we should find a way to hear more of it. There’s a line here, a callback to Creedence Clearwater Revival, about being “stuck in Lodi again.” But Lodi these days is a beautiful place. They grow Old Vine Zinfandel on huge farms, the wine is cheap and delicious, and everybody seems happy. There are worse places. Like, a lot worse.
33 Miley Cyrus — “Flowers”
The grown-up Miley Cyrus can sing with the best of the best. I’m happy for her that she’s in a place where she can choose her own projects. I don’t have a lot of interest in an album like Endless Summer Vacation, but when she puts out a track that I do like to listen to, I’m reminded of what a huge talent she is.
33 1/3 Taylor Swift — “Blank Space” (Talyor’s Version)
With a tip of the hat to the voice of the public, let’s acknowledge that Taylor Swift is now the undisputed god-king of American music. A year ago I would still have argued that Beyoncé’s greater cultural impact mattered. There is no longer a debate. The kids have spoken, and there’s just a whole lot of white kids in this country. It would be nice to forget about such things and just enjoy the fact that these re-recorded albums sound great. This year I learned that at least part of the reason why Taylor is so loyal to Jack Antonoff (whose influence I loathe) is that he is the technical mastermind behind the re-recording projects. That makes sense, and we can’t begrudge him that success because he’s doing an amazing job. Let’s just hope in the future Taylor spends more time writing with Aaron Dressner, whose songs like “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” are far more worth listening to.